Wednesday, July 14, 2004

FYI? -- by Elliot Bougis

Something is rotten in Denmark, methinks.

On the Web recently I noticed a bright orange link labeled “FYE.” I did a double take. “F-Y-E? Not F-Y-I?” I wondered. Apparently, this garish little icon was a link “for your entertainment,” not for your information. I was stunned. Consumerism strikes again, I thought. Reeling from the blow, I am left wondering if information is suddenly a secondary concern for e-surfers? If so, when did I miss this e-tsunami?

Among my friends and classmates, the Internet is a panacea of sorts. If I have a question, I almost invariably hear, “Look it up on the Internet.” I cherish the Internet as a bottomless, digital encyclopedia. When I would lose myself in the aisles of libraries and bookstores, ambling from one topic to the next, closing hours and daunting prices stifle my hunger for knowledge. Also, printed books are heavy and can be dusty. By contrast, the Internet is (basically) free, weightless and sanitary. I find that the Internet, to its great credit, fosters guiltless strolling through halls of information by allowing the curious to leap from link to link, free from cost and curfew. Rightly so, then, it seems, the Internet is touted as the vanguard into the “information age” (along the “information superhighway,” of course).

But then I think of that little FYE icon. I have the disquieting feeling that the Internet is a much different vehicle, in a much different age. Contra mundum, perhaps, I view the Internet as our magical, automated, Technicolor carpet into the entertainment age. The Internet looks more like a billboard without borders than a global cornucopia of enlightenment. Money got a modem.

Recall the most volcanic legal feuds concerning the Internet. They all have been commercial in nature. First, corporations and private citizens have butted heads for the rights to the names of commercial websites (like Second, musicians (like Metallica) and recording companies have wrangled with citizens about free music on the Internet (via Napster, Morpheus, etc.). Then, there was the Microsoft anti-trust debacle. Bill Gates – our Moses into the digital Promised Land – and money – our milk and honey – are inseparable in the public eye. Finally, and perhaps most explosively, the battle still rages to regulate pornography, that perennially lucrative industry.

So, if the Internet is the vehicle into the information age, why have these incorrigibly commercial issues been at the steering wheel? Why has there been a comparatively deafening silence about, say, grassroots news sources undermining established news agencies? Why do free books on privately run online reading rooms create such a comparatively puny ripple in legal waters? Why had I never heard of buying diplomas before becoming a denizen of the Web?

The answer is because the Internet is primarily a commercial engine, not a learning medium. Ask most college professors what they think about online references in scholarly works – and be prepared either to duck quickly or to listen for a while. If the Internet is a “web,” is not consumerism the spider trundling toward us … to suck us dry? We are allegedly driving at breakneck speeds into an information revolution, but our eyes are glued to every passing billboard. Consider that the Web’s largest and most popular library (of sorts) is the bookseller, typifies the seamless (con)fusion of commerce and learning in the computer age. It seems our vehicle of choice on the information superhighway is a lemon. Perhaps we should start calling the Internet the “Enternet.” Honesty is a virtue, after all.

In any event, the Internet’s dubious function is but a magnificent symptom of a deeper illness in our society. Philip Yancey, a leading Christian author and editor of Christianity Today, argues in Finding God in Unexpected Places that our society craves entertainment above all else. I agree. In what other society could the ubiquitous “infomercial” thrive? (Will we in the U.S.A. ever see a true infomercial: an advertisement for knowledge?) Again, in what other society would I receive weekly offers to buy graduate degrees? Yancey suggests, sardonically, that in order “[t]o get a measure of how much we value entertainment, consider that a good baseball pitcher earns twice as much for nine innings’ work as a high school physics teacher earns in a year. … [Moreover,] American families watch television five to seven hours a day, demonstrating an obsession with entertainment unmatched in history” (p. 152). Something is rotten in Denmark, I believe.

I caught my first whiff of this social gangrene a few years ago when I went to Disney World. Waiting in line, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but sweat, I ruminated. Although I knew little about the Soviet Union, intact at the time, I had heard that “people over there” had to wait hours in line – just for bread. All around I saw hundreds of people over here waiting hours in line – just for thirty seconds of noise and wind. I looked around and saw better what it means to be a USAmerican. In fun we trust, I conceded uneasily.

More recently, I see evidence of the same malaise by comparing the older game show, Jeopardy, with its newer rival, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (WWBM). Both shows are entertaining, albeit for different reasons. Jeopardy is entertaining because it showcases people genuinely knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects. Money is won or lost with the unimpressive squeeze of a thumb. Jeopardy is filmed in a relatively austere studio. Even when contestants go for broke in Final Jeopardy, they wager under dim lights to a tune as soothing as any lullaby.

In contrast, WWBM showcases people of genuinely less astounding acumen. Contestants play for much higher stakes in a much more dazzling studio, complete with intricate loopholes, interactive helps from the audience, hot whirling lamps and music robust enough to bring a tear to John Phillip Sousa’s eye. At bottom, WWBM is not a trivia show, but a televised gambling session. The allure of WWBM is not how much a contestant knows but how much he or she risks. To our delight, and to our shame, WWBM is infinitely more entertaining than it is enlightening.

The “Enternet” and shows like WWBM are the natural outgrowths of our thrill-crazed society. Much of the world recognizes our capitalistic perversity. For example, while I was enjoying a bus tour through Paris a few years ago with classmates, the tour guide drew our attention to the U.S. Embassy. We looked where she pointed but saw no embassy building. In truth, she was letting us in on a common Parisian joke: she was pointing to a McDonald’s restaurant, the “American embassy.”

This derision, albeit a trifle hypocritical coming from a European, is justified considering the Western world (i.e., the USA and Europe) annually spends $21 billion on perfumes, $28 billion on pet care, $45 billion on movies and a whoppering $110 billion on fast-food. Yet, according to some economists, every living human could have clean water, adequate food, shelter and a basic education for $40 billion per year. Further, according to Sojourners Magazine (May-June 2002, p. 17), one-fifth of USAmericans’ food ends up in landfills – enough food to feed 49 million people. Something is rotten in Denmark, indeed.

Our obsession with affluence was unfazed even by the attacks of September 11. Soon after the dust had settled, we were advised (between commercials) to “return to normalcy.” How could we best regain normalcy? How else but by flexing our capital, by recovering like commercial phoenixes! And how can we civilians fight terrorism? By shopping, spending and splurging, of course! Meanwhile, recent budget cuts (in Florida and other states) ensure that no undue funds go to schooling. So much for the Enlightenment. We are in the Entertainment.

No matter. The show must go on. Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

FYI: it’s a shame the rest of the world can’t join the party.

No comments: